Friday, November 2, 2012

My Halloween at a Voodoo House

As many of you know, my WIP VOODOO QUEEN is about Marie Laveau, the most famous priestess of voodoo who ever lived. When I heard there would be a voodoo festival on Halloween - the day before Nano when I would start writing the novel - it seemed fitting that I should go. 
Reserved for the ghost

Luckily, the professor I met at the University of Southern Mississippi was game to go with me. He used to live there, so he was a fountain of knowledge. He also knew the best restaurants. We had lunch at Muriel's where I tried turtle soup for the first time, which was surprisingly tasty.

New Orleans is overrun with ghosts and this restaurant has a ghost of its own. They keep a table and chair reserved for him and his guest every day, along with two full glasses of wine. It was my first legit haunted house!

The place holding the festival is called Voodoo Authentica. Everything in the store serves a spiritual purpose, so much so that you can't buy a simple knick-knick or gag gift to take home. They cater to believers, not tourists. 

In the walls are several nooks with altars to the various spirits containing statues, candles, fruit, incense, coins. All the worshipers in the house (aka the employees) wore white dresses and white head wraps. The soul resides mostly in the head and white is the color of purity, so the wraps them spiritually clean.

Mama Lola
The person I wanted to meet more than anyone was Mama Lola, one of the most famous voodoo priestesses in the world. I first saw this aged Creole woman sitting in the back of the shop, looking about a hundred and scowling at nothing. 

The worshipers of the house - her "godchildren" - grasped each of her arms and hefted her to her feet so they could guide her outside. She spoke to them in her thick accent with a mix of adoration and amusing harshness, complete with many kisses on the lips.

To start the festival, Mama Lola opened with a song dedicated to Elegba. A godson placated the spirits by shaking a sacred instrument (its name escapes me right now) and spraying mouthfuls of rum on the doorway. A spectator mumbled something about sanitation. 

When we were all seated to get ready for the first speaker, Mama Lola decided she didn't like where she was placed. "I want to be with my friends," she demanded, pointing to the people she wanted to sit with. There was much to-do as a goddaughter tried to reorganize all the chairs without getting tangled in the chords to the speakers. 

The goddaughter finally said, "That should do it..."

By this time, Mama Lola was tired of the fuss the woman was making. "Thank you, but now you shut up." She affectionately held the woman's face in her hands. "You shut up now."

I thought about getting a reading from Mama Lola. I wasn't sure how I felt about it because I'm not supposed to associate with other religions, but journalist Rod Davis says it's a great way to break the ice and get your foot in the door. Sadly, she was all booked up for the day.

It's just as well. With that accent, I could hardly understand a word she said.

I asked Mama Lola how you can tell if you've been "called by the spirits." She launched into a long story about her spiritual journey and I couldn't follow any of it. I had to ask the professor to retell the it for me, and it went something like this:

She was seven years old when one day, she went missing. The whole town was involved in the search. Her grandfather told the sheriff that if they didn't find her, he would kill everyone. Finally, they found her in a dumpster filled with spit eating cabbage. (We decided "spit" and "cabbage" must be terms for "garbage.") Her mother told her when she was only seven that she had the power and she would be a great priestess someday.

When he saw my bewildered expression, he explained that she was very old.

The second person I most wanted to see was Ina Fandrich. She wrote what is considered one of the best books about Marie Laveau and I was dying to ask her questions. 

Throughout the event, the professor and I tried to figure out which of the spectators she was. One woman looked like she fit the bill - she had a tasteful suit, perfectly groomed hair, and the professional demeanor of a scholar. He guessed it was another woman with an artistic scarf taking copious notes.

When it was Ina's turn to speak, the woman who stood up was the last we would have expected.

"No freakin' way," whispered the professor.

She wore a purple-and-black dress and a huge head wrap tied with a large bow on the side. I couldn't tell if she was a practitioner or if she was wearing a Halloween costume. We discovered she was a believer who could heal and give readings, and she was a member of Mama Lola's house.

I told her about my novel and she said what every scholar I've spoken to has said: that Francine Prose already wrote about Marie Laveau. I've discovered that in the academic world, if someone's already done it you don't pursue it. In the historical fiction world you can tell the same story for as long as it makes money, and when a book goes out of print like Prose's it might as well not exist anymore.

I asked Ina how Marie would have learned her craft: would it have been from a family member since the "power" is inherited, would she have been self-taught because she did what the spirits inspired her to do, or would she have been trained in a voodoo house by a mambo and houngan like in Haiti?

"Yes, yes, and yes," she said. "Actually, we don't really know."

We discussed different styles of voodoo - santeria, Yoruba, hoodoo - and the professor asked what Marie would have practiced. "Neither," she answered. "All Marie's ways are gone now. Her style of voodoo died with her."

"Fantastic," I grumbled. More than anything, Ina showed me how complicated this book will be to write.

I got the chance to talk to two of the godchildren and ask them about the head wraps, the white clothes, the symbols of their jewelry. One of the girls was going to "kanzo" in Haiti, which is how you become an official priestess. Most spirits reside in Haiti, so it's the best place to get initiated.

"Do people treat you differently because you follow voodoo?" I asked.

Their response wasn't what I expected; people recognize they follow voodoo when they wear white head wraps or symbolic necklaces, and instead of being rude or judgmental, they more often ask for spiritual favors!

"How does your family feel about your religion?" I asked them.

"Oh, we're totally going to hell," one of them said with a chuckle.

The festival ended with singing, drumming, and dancing. If I were by myself I would have been up there dancing with them, but I felt self-conscious with the professor nearby and settled with tapping my foot.

I was hoping to see a possession, though I didn't expect to. The voodoos believe that when you worship, a spirit can enter into you and give you a divine experience. (I wish they'd come up with a term less frightening; it's not all that different from the Pentecostal speaking in tongues.) 

You can tell a person is possessed when they seem to lose control and act in ways they wouldn't normally. In fact, you can supposedly tell which spirit has entered into a person by the way they behave. The professor and I were trying to guess if anyone was possessed when we saw one of the spectators dancing by herself in front of the drums. He guessed what was coming and pulled out his video recorder.

The drumming stopped and the woman almost collapsed. Ina ran to wrap her arms around her. The voodoos helped the woman to a chair and started fanning her, putting wet rags on her forehead, and rubbing rum on her face. The woman was shaking and mumbling incoherently. I'd never seen anything like it before. 

The professor and I were confused. Possession is supposed to be a celebratory experience - the highest level of worship - and her situation looked the opposite of pleasant.  

They guided her inside and I asked one of the goddaughters if she was okay.

"Of course," she answered, as if this were the most natural thing in the world.

Ten minutes later the woman came out no longer possessed, looking exhausted and wearing a white head wrap the shop gave her. A man standing next to me shook his head, confused.

"That's my wife," he told me.

"Is she alright? She looked pretty shaken up," I said.

"You should have seen her inside when they were trying to get whatever that was out of her. It was like The Exorcist in there."

This offended a believer close by, who scoffed in disgust and walked away.

"Has this ever happened before?" I asked.

"Never!" He shook his head again. "We aren't even from here. We're visiting from the Bahamas!"

Considering that they were just tourists, I thought he was being a pretty good sport.  If I got possessed, my husband would have reacted very differently.

I still had questions, so I asked Ina if the woman had been possessed by an evil spirit.

"There are no evil spirits. The dichotomy of evil and good is a Christian concept," she explained. "Pagans understand that any spirit can do good things, but any spirit can also get angry."

When it ended and the professor and I got in the car, he said, "Well, I learned a lot."

"Yes," I agreed. "So did I."


  1. That is awesome! Great way to do research! I'm stopping by from the How to Pitch like a Rockstar contest - your name was on the list, but maybe you're deep in the Nano trenches!

  2. Oh no! I'm totally deep in the Nano trenches, and I completely forgot about the pitching thing. Ugh, I feel terrible. She even sent me an email to remind me.

    Thank you so much for the reminder!


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